WAUKEE, Iowa — Bernie Sanders preaches “political revolution” to the crowds at his campaign rallies. Elizabeth Warren promises “big, systemic change” as she rolls out major policy proposals. And Pete Buttigieg warns his packed town hall audiences that the “riskiest thing we could do is try too hard to play it safe.”
But speaking to a khaki-clad crowd in the wooded front yard of Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor, Joseph R. Biden Jr. delivered a very different message: “I am absolutely convinced that there are still things people are prepared to cooperate on.”
In the days before the candidates will gather in Detroit for their second round of presidential debates, Democrats find themselves grappling with a central question: Is beating President Trump enough? Or should Democrats, much like the man they hope to defeat, shake the political system like a snow globe and worry later about how things settle?
Mr. Trump’s victory has prompted a wave of anxiety among risk-averse Democratic primary voters who fear the shock of waking up — once again — to find their antagonist-in-chief elected to the White House. At the same time, the president’s polarizing politics have energized the party’s progressive wing, prompting many of the candidates to embrace a series of proposals that some Democrats worry are out of step with the beliefs of a majority of voters.
It is a critical question of identity for a party that has been trying to bridge an ideological schism ever since the midterms ushered in an ascendant group of lawmakers eager to challenge the establishment. It also comes as Congressional Democrats have squabbled within their own caucus over issues like whether to impeach the president or whether they should compromise on border control.
Interviews with more than four dozen Democratic officials, activists and voters across Iowa found a party divided between those who felt that ousting the president and returning to a pre-Trump ethos in Washington was sufficient — and not worth the risk of seeking bigger change — and those who wanted to use the current political moment to fight for a fundamental reshaping of the nation’s economic, political and health care systems.
“We’d love to be thinking about creating change and progress, but honestly, right now we all just want this beloved republic to survive Trump,” said Marjie Foster, the Democratic chairwoman in Decatur County, an area south of Des Moines on the Missouri border.
Others say Democrats are also culpable for building a political system dependent on big-money interests — and now must tear it down.
“It’s foolish to pretend that the problems in this country are the result of one aberrant presidency,” said Zach Simonson, the Democratic chairman in Wapello County in southeast Iowa. “Trump was the inevitable result of an economic system where both parties put the needs of wealthy donors ahead of working people. ”
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The push and pull over which path to pursue is playing out in tangible ways. In Iowa, interest groups are trying to push the Democratic candidates to the left. Greenpeace, for instance, stationed a field organizer in Des Moines who totes a hand-operated scoreboard to political events displaying the grades the group has awarded each of the 2020 candidates for their stances on the environment. In New Hampshire, volunteers with the American Civil Liberties Union appear at town hall events to press candidates to end the cash bail system and cut incarceration rates in half.
There are no organizations rallying early-state voters and candidates to the political middle.
The debate over what kind of candidate to run against Mr. Trump is a Rorschach test for how Democratic candidates, activists and voters see the future — and the past.
The party’s center-left candidates argue that Mr. Trump is a historical comma, a four- or eight-year break from the country’s political baseline. They promise a return to a bygone political era of bipartisan cooperation and respectful political debate, with far less polarization.
“Trump is very much a symptom of our problems, not the cause,” Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado said in an interview earlier this month. “People thought, ‘We couldn’t do any worse, we might as well blow the place up.’ We need a better standard than that.”
Others, including Mr. Buttigieg, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, view the president as the period at the end of an era in American political life.
“The Reagan era has basically defined my entire life span, and it’s finally ending,” Mr. Buttigieg said in a recent interview. “We’re just in a different place than the kind of ’90s formula where you could assume that part of how you appeal to independent voters was to pursue ideological centrism.”
Most voters interviewed in Iowa in recent months said their attraction to candidates was based more on who could win than political kinship.
Kathy Varney, an editor for the defense contractor Collins Aerospace, wore an “Impeach Trump” shirt to a recent candidate gathering in Cedar Rapids, where she lives. Ms. Varney, 61, said she is considering Ms. Warren, Senator Kamala Harris of California and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, candidates who represent three disparate points on the party’s ideological spectrum.
“I just want to get everything upright again,” she said. “The number one thing is just beat Trump, just get him out of there.”
The crowded presidential campaign has scrambled longstanding alliances as some Democrats who spent years as rabble rousers now find themselves allied with Mr. Biden because they see him as the safest vessel to victory. Other members of the party establishment are looking to fresher faces to build a new political coalition to win back the White House.
“Progressives I’ve talked to have shown a surprisingly pragmatic approach to 2020,” said Bill Press, the former California Democratic Party chairman in whose Washington townhouse Mr. Sanders first brainstormed about his 2016 campaign. “They are willing to bend, be flexible, hold their nose and support somebody that normally they might not give the time of day to if they feel he or she is the strongest candidate.”
At Mr. Biden’s event last week in Waukee, the Democratic establishment of Iowa quietly mingled with the former vice president and Mr. Vilsack, who served as agriculture secretary under President Obama. Few were demanding fundamental change to the political system.
“I want a good middle ground,” said Heather Matson, a freshman state representative from Ankeny who ousted a five-term incumbent Republican last year. “I’m not a call-for-a-big-disruption type of person, but what I want is someone who can inspire us and bring us together.”
The quiet tension between restoration and revolution is likely to come into clearer view when the candidates gather in Detroit for the second set of debates.
On Tuesday night, Ms. Warren, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Buttigieg will stand between rival Democrats who have framed their campaigns as a return to pre-Trump normalcy. Wednesday’s face-off will place Mr. Biden between Ms. Harris and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, the race’s two African-American candidates who have both sparred with the former vice president over his record on race-related issues.
Those matchups foreshadow how the primary contest is likely to develop into this fall and winter, some Democratic officials say.
Christine Pelosi, a Democratic National Committee member from San Francisco whose mother is the House speaker, predicts that as the field narrows, the race will come down to a battle between a get-along candidate and a blow-it-up rival.
“I think we end up with one person from each philosophy,” she said. “You have to talk about both, but when you talk about big, bold structural change, that is very scary for people.”
Representative Dave Loebsack of Iowa argued that the desire to defeat Mr. Trump will override any differences of position.
“Splits are happening more and more right now among the candidates,” Mr. Loebsack said recently, as a parade of five presidential candidates spoke at an Iowa City fund-raiser for an Iowa state senator. “But I still think the bottom line is that people desperately want to get rid of Donald Trump.”
Not everyone agrees: Some argue that just focusing on Mr. Trump will not be enough to mobilize an increasingly diverse and liberal party.
To win, they argue, Democrats must energize the minority and young voters who have moved to the left on social and economic issues. Those voters, they say, want to hear more than simply a critique of a president they already believe is unfit for the White House.
“That is not the sole message and it cannot be because there are real challenges in the country that predate Trump,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, an organization that works closely with African-American voters.
Hoping to inspire primary voters, many of the leading candidates have embraced proposals that were once constrained to the fringes of the party. They have pitched eliminating most of the private health insurance industry, expanding the size of the Supreme Court, decriminalizing illegal border crossings and embracing reparations for slavery to some black Americans.
Their campaigns point to polls showing that majorities of Americans agree. A New York Times/SurveyMonkey poll found that two-thirds of Americans and 81 percent of Democrats back a 2 percent tax on households with a net worth of more than $50 million, as Ms. Warren proposed. The same survey found that 59 percent of Americans support free tuition at public colleges, and 58 percent support Medicare for All — both of which have long been staple policies for Mr. Sanders.
But when asked about the specifics of those plans — like eliminating private health insurance — those numbers often drop.
Moderates worry that images from the primary debates, like the photos from the June debate that show 10 Democratic candidates raising their hands in support of free health care for undocumented immigrants, will come back to haunt the candidates in the general election.
“There are some things that some of these candidates want that are not achievable and will probably cost Democrats the election,” said Danny Homan, the president of AFSCME Iowa Council 61, the state’s largest employee union. “Let’s not go so far left that normal, average, everyday citizens say, ‘That’s not for me.’”